King of Dawnrose
Young Prince Caradan hit the dirt of the practice yard. Again. Hard. At least, he thought, spitting out dust, it has not rained for a week. At least he was not covered in mud. He stayed down for a moment, wishing he could be done with this ridiculous exercise.
“Get up,” barked the master-at-arms, a greying old mouse named Sir Ector.
Grudgingly, Prince Caradan obeyed. He turned once more to face Squire Alister, his opponent. Alister was of an age with the prince, but taller. He was a noble mouse from the neighboring kingdom of Glimmervale, and currently a guest in the Dawnrose castle, part of a diplomatic party from Glimmervale. Prince Caradan wished he could have the foreign squire thrown in a cell to rot.
Alister’s smile was disingenuous as he backed off a pace or two, giving Caradan breathing space.
“Another match to Squire Alister,” announced Sir Ector, formally. His rumbling voice did not betray any emotion -- neither shame nor sympathy on behalf of his sovereign's son and heir.
The two young mice wore padded armor and fought with wooden practice swords in a large, bright courtyard. Racks of real weapons and the practice ones lined the walls. Young noble mice stood in pairs, practicing the knightly art of swordplay under the watchful eye of the master-at-arms. Most were Dawnrose mice, wearing the red, gold and white of the kingdom. About a half dozen were the visitors from Glimmervale though-- wearing dark green and bronze of that kingdom.
“Are you well, highness?” Alister asked condescendingly. “Can you continue?”
Caradan uselessly brushed at the dirt on his tabard, off the golden thread of the phoenix embroidered there. He winced; he was covered in bruises under his fur.
“Of course,” he said through gritted teeth. He’d hardly been in the training yard for ten minutes. Sir Ector would not approve if he left now. And if Ector did not approve, he would go to Caradan’s mother. And that… well, that would not go well. He would need to endure a few more humiliations. Besides which, running away was worse than showing one could take a beating. He did not wish to lose face with his people or with the Glimmervale delegation.
Caradan retrieved his wooden sword. It was heavy, weighted with lead in the hilt to give it the feel of a real weapon. He hated it.
The little prince came back on guard with Alister. Aside from being taller, Alister was wider too, and stronger. Handsomer. The outland squire was amused by Caradan, the heir to the Kingdom of Dawnrose, and his weakness. Caradan’s parents were both mice of great renown and martial prowess. Especially his mother, the queen. Alister was not the first to be surprised by Caradan’s clumsiness, but he was the first to take such glee in besting the young prince over and over again, and for the second day running.
“Ready?” asked Alister, tone mocking.
“Ready,” growled Caradan, raising his weapon.
“Begin,” said Sir Ector.
Alister stepped forward and hit Caradan’s sword so hard that it rattled the prince’s teeth. Caradan retreated. Alister swung for Caradan’s sword again and again: battering the prince’s weapon, numbing his paws. Finally, the smaller mouse lost hold of his practice sword again.
Alister could not keep the victorious grin from his face as he swept Caradan’s legs out from under him -- sending the prince once more crashing to the ground, this time on his tail.
“Another match to me,” said Alister mockingly.
None of the other squires and pages were looking at Caradan. They wouldn’t look. Most of the Dawnrose mice had knocked the prince down at one time or another, but they all knew that he wasn’t very good. There was no honor in bullying him. And no one wanted to make an enemy of their future king. Now, though, they were looking embarrassed. It was harder to ignore your prince being a weakling when an outsider was making an exhibition of him.
The only Dawnrose mice who did not seem embarrassed were those more pitiable than the prince himself. They were mice from families who were impoverished; else they were fifth or sixth in line to inherit anything. Their padded armor was patched, and second-hand at best. The ivory of their Dawnrose livery was faded to dull yellow. They were not embarrassed; they were relieved. For once, these poor mice were not the butt of bullying in the practice yard. They weren’t enjoying Caradan’s humiliation, but they didn’t mind either.
Caradan returned to face Alister, in front of the impassive Sir Ector. Caradan was thinking of all the ways he could make the other mouse’s life miserable once he was a king and this louse was a knight. Maybe Dawnrose and Glimmervale would have a small war. Maybe Alister would end up forgotten in a dungeon for a few seasons before anyone could ransom him.
This time, Alister hooked the hilt of Caradan’s sword immediately -- sending it soaring in a majestic arc through the air.
Alister didn’t strike him though, to end the bout. So Caradan was forced to mince and caper, without a weapon. The Prince darted right and left, trying to get to his fallen sword without receiving another bruise for his trouble. Caradan glanced at Sir Ector, but the old master-at-arms would not intervene to save the prince from this shameful display. He probably thought it would encourage Caradan to be more diligent in his combat practice.
“Come on, highness,” Alister mocked Caradan, “You must defend yourself!”
Caradan tried to get around Alister, but the other mouse landed a stinging blow on his rump. Caradan froze, furious.
“Ah, seems I win again,” said Alister.
“The match goes to Squire Alister,” said Ector, and even his voice sounded tight with resentment now.
Caradan was furious. He didn’t want to punish this squire later. He wanted to do it now.
Yet, it would not do to be petulant or vindictive to the outland squire. The mice in this practice court would be his knights and courtiers one day -- or the knights and courtiers of his neighboring kingdom. He was never going to inspire them with his fighting prowess, but that wasn’t the only way to win loyalty and renown. With a calming breath, he went to get his sword.
One of the pitiable lot had picked up the practice weapon. The young mouse held it out for Caradan.
It was Tristan - the eighth son of the Earl of Tallstock. He would be lucky to be able to buy his own armor, let alone a warhare to ride. He’d never be more than a hedgeknight, like the rest of this sad clique -- no matter how good a fighter was. Caradan snatched the practice sword from Tristan’s paws - and caught a twinkle of rage in the other mouse’s eye.
For a moment, Caradan was caught by the look. Did Tristan hate Caradan? Why was he so angry? But that wasn’t it at all...
A quick inspection told Caradan that this Tristan was not embarrassed. Nor was he amused, or relieved to see Caradan getting Alister’s attention. He was angry on Caradan’s behalf. He was so angry, he looked ready to burst.
Caradan turned away from Tristan, returning to Alister. Surely four losses was enough. He could leave now, couldn’t he? Caradan wished to return to his comfortable room and his books and leave all this sweaty nonsense behind for the day. He wanted to go lick his wounds… and yet.
An idea had taken hold in the back of his head.
Caradan looked to the master-at-arms. The old mouse nodded his head slightly. If Caradan wanted to leave now, he could.
With a settling breath, Caradan raised his wooden practice sword again. He saw Sir Ector’s bushy eyebrows go up when he did. Alister, however, was excited to keep the sham going.
“A little higher, highness,” said Alister, as though giving advice. “Else I’d shave your whiskers with a real blade.”
Caradan did as he was bid, but as Alister swung his sword -- again, intending to knock the weapon away before delivering a strike. Effective in this case, but not good form for fighting. Not enough control, and the move had become predictable. Caradan guessed that Alister was not creative -- just vindictive. The prince pretended to try a different block this time. The move ended with Alister’s heavy swing catching Caradan on the forearm.
Prince Caradan howled and danced about: “You broke my arm!” he cried. It wasn’t true, but it was close enough. His arm hurt!
Mutters and gasps ran through the courtyard. It was one thing to deliver a few extra bruises, but Caradan was still heir to a kingdom. Their kingdom. Out of the corner of his eye, Caradan saw that Tristan’s face was furious. He’d even started forward -- and was only held back by one of his peers. Sir Ector was starting forward to check Caradan’s injury, but the prince waved him away angrily. The master-at-arms stopped.
Squire Alister meanwhile was anxious, but he covered it with scorn.
“You moved your arm in the way,” he said. “How was I supposed to avoid it?”
“You meant to harm me,” said Caradan coldly. That got a gasp or two. “Or you are a clumsy oaf who does not know where he’s putting his sword?”
“I won’t take insults from a weakling like you!” Alister shouted at him, gripping his own weapon like he was about to attack the unarmed prince.
“Are those the words of a gentlemouse? Injure me, and then call me weak? You honorless snipe,” sneered Caradan. “Is this what we can expect from the knights of Glimmervale? Are they honorless thugs or graceless mules?”
“How dare you?!” roared Alister. “Pick up your sword! Prince or not, you’ll pay for that!”
“So you can pretend you aren’t just a bully?” said Caradan. “And unworthy to be a knight?”
That pushed him over the edge. Alister swung his wooden sword at the prince, and found it plucked from his hand by Sir Ector disarming him. The master-at-arms frowned at them both.
“That’s enough of that,” he said. Alister looked chastened, but Caradan said, “I believe that constitutes a challenge, master-at-arms.”
Ector looked at Caradan warily. “Only,” he said, “if one of you deems it so. Are you challenging the prince, Squire Alister?”
Alister shook his head angrily. His eartips were bright red with embarrassment -- not for losing his temper, but for striking at an unarmed foe.
“I call it a challenge,” said Caradan. “I feel I have been challenged, and I accept.”
The master-at-arms looked skeptical. “You wish to fight him again, highness?”
Caradan shook his head. “No. My arm is injured -- that means I can choose a champion.”
“Yes,” he said, “It is the right of the injured to choose a champion.”
“Do your worst,” said Alister. “I fear no knights of the Dawnrose, let alone puny squires and pages.”
Caradan looked around at the others in the courtyard. Several of the older Dawnrose squires puffed up their chests. Everyone expected Caradan to choose the biggest and strongest squire to put this visiting squire in his place. They all longed for a chance to put their skills on display. A chance for honor. Alister’s bold facade cracked a little as he looked them over too, wondering who he would face.
Caradan knew them all. Wealthy nobles. A few worthy fighters. All seeking their own place in the songs of the Walled Kingdoms. They were loyal to the crown, yes, but they held their own honor dearer than his. They were ambitious and full of their own dreams. They would fight well, but it would not be for him. He passed over them, and made his decision.
Caradan pointed to Tristan. The landless, poor mouse -- in his much mended padding, carrying his much battered sword -- stepped forward with head held high. Tristan was taller than Caradan himself, but thinner than Alister. The prince hoped that he was remembering the other mouse’s skills correctly.
Tristan was so far into his fury, that he didn’t even look surprised to be chosen by the prince. He crossed the courtyard, coming to stand by Caradan and raising his scarred practice sword all in one motion. Caradan skipped quickly out of the way, giving them room.
“Begin,” said Sir Ector.
Alister tried the same trick he’d been using on Caradan. He raised his sword and swung it hard for the other mouse’s blade -- looking to tire him out, to make Tristan drop his sword.
Tristan swung his own blade to met Alister and both mice were rattled by the force of the collision. Tristan roared and started swinging his own sword wildly at Alister, raining blows on the bigger mouse faster than Caradan had thought possible. Even Sir Ector looked surprised.
Alister blocked, and blocked again. The outland squire stepped back and sideways to avoid being hit, but he couldn’t get a counterswing in.
Another strike, another block, and then Tristan caught Alister a glancing smack on the shoulder. Alister dropped his guard, but Tristan did not. It hadn’t been a killing blow. Sir Ector did not stop the fight.
Now, Alister looked anxious. He blocked and then failed to block. He stepped aside and then blocked another strike. He stepped away and away and Tristan pressed his advantage, backing Alister against the courtyard wall. Then Tristan started hitting Alister’s sword, swinging like a blacksmith striking steel. Over and over the wooden swords clacked together. Faster and faster.
Panic filled Alister’s eyes. Tristan was swinging that wooden sword fast enough to injure him, padding or not.
Finally, Alister’s sword flew from his numbed paw. With perfect control, Tristan put the point of his practice weapon at Alister’s chin. A killing stroke.
“Match to Tristan,” intoned Sir Ector. Tristan stepped back a single step, letting out an irritated sigh -- like he wanted to fight to go on longer.
Squire Alister was severely shaken, and thoroughly out of breath. Mumbling something, he gathered up his sword and hurried from the practice yard. The other squires and pages turned to talk to each other, muttering -- talking about Tristan’s form and Alister’s poor exit. Before noon, the tale would be all over the castle.
“Does your arm not pain you?” asked Sir Ector.
Caradan’s grin faded and he made a show of holding his arm carefully.
“Oh, it pains me very much,” said the prince, trying to sound sincere. “I don’t know if it’s broken, but I should go see the healer.”
Sir Ector nodded. As Caradan was about to leave, though, his way was blocked: Tristan had come to kneel in front of him.
Caradan looked down at the mouse who had come so ably to his rescue, and exacted such a perfect reprisal for him.
“You fought well, Tristan,” said Caradan. He knew he was not a majestic sight, but he put every ounce of formality he could into the words, honoring Tristan’s gesture. It had been well fought, and clearly the victory had meant something for the mouse. Was there more to this than simple anger at seeing an outsider pick on his prince?
“As I always will, highness,” said Tristan.
Caradan thought about that. Tristan wasn’t even a squire. No knight needed a landless, penniless eighth son as a squire. Not if there was anyone wealthier and better connected to pick. That was their mistake, thought Caradan -- like leaving good steel to rust.
Regally, Caradan touched Tristan’s shoulder, indicating that he should rise. “I believe you, Champion.”
Tristan’s face lit up, to be so named. Caradan smiled. He knew he’d done more than deal with a bully today. This was loyalty. This was what he needed if he was going to be more than a weakling with a crown.
“Walk with me,” he said to Tristan. “Let’s talk, you and I.” And for the first of many, many times in their long lives and their great friendship, Tristan fell in beside him.